Laughing at Death

Dia de los Muertos isn’t afraid of no ghosts—it celebrates them

Elvira Diaz makes <span style="">pan de muerto</span>, or bread of the dead, for the early November celebration. It’s often offered on a table with skulls and items enjoyed by the dead when they were living.

Elvira Diaz makes pan de muerto, or bread of the dead, for the early November celebration. It’s often offered on a table with skulls and items enjoyed by the dead when they were living.

Photo By David Robert

As Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—dawns on Nov. 2, the Northern Nevada Latino community will honor its loved ones, live it up and laugh in death’s face. All this they will do with irreverence, mocking the inevitable transition as an acknowledgement of never-ending life in the hereafter.

Here, in the fastest growing state in the nation, the burgeoning Hispanic population often experiences a collective culture shock in the transition—one rooted in the abrupt loss of traditions. But more and more, they’re adapting those traditions to their adopted homes.

Elvira Diaz, 43, is a contemporary woman determined to thrive in America while maintaining a tenacious hold on the customs with which she grew up. A divorced single mother of two daughters, she works 12-hour days as the owner-operator of Carson City’s Sierra Bakery. Twenty years ago, armed with the English she learned in her native Mexico City—a conurbation with a staggering population of more than 18 million people, according to 2005 census figures—Diaz moved to Orange County, Calif., with the hope of landing a job at Coca-Cola.

“I’m American by choice,” Diaz asserts, setting a plate of pan de muerto (bread of the dead) on the table of a chartreuse booth at the bakery. Professionally, she’s gearing up for Day of the Dead, perfecting the craft of the sugar skulls and skeletons, breads and baked goods that are staples of this multicultural holiday. Personally, Diaz will honor saints like Padre Pio, as well as the late Pope John Paul II, whom she considers “a really important leader,” and her beloved father, Luis Jose Vidales, who passed away in 1989. For him, she will offer honey and a salad featuring nopales, a popular cactus.

While the day is devoted to prayer and paying respects, Diaz says the focus is on celebration, punctuated by mirth, merriment, even mockery—defiantly laughing in death’s face as a vivid illustration of belief in eternal life.

Diaz prepares batches of pumpkin shaped cookies at her bakery in Carson City. While most Americans are thinking of Halloween, she’s also preparing for Day of the Dead, a tradition from her native Mexico.

Photo By David Robert

“It’s like a party, but at the same time, you remember the people you love,” she observes. “It’s not a day off. It’s a day of memory. We [exchange] la calavera [a skull form], a poem, write something funny. Let’s say you get upset with someone, but you want to make it all better. You make a poem so you can get back together. We make fun of the dead. We’re not afraid of the dead; we just confront the dead in a humorous way.”

An excerpt of a poem written by Elvira Diaz’s friend Silvia Delgado reads:

“… Al llegar a Sierra Bakery / Extasiada por el pan quedo / que al beber café con los clientes / hasta las almas olvido.”

“… When I arrive to the Sierra Bakery, I’m delighted by the bread. I stay / to drink coffee with the clients / until I forget the souls.”

Lighting the way for the dead
“Each candle represents a death in the family,” explains Leticia Servin, president of the Latino Parents Committee at Carson City’s Mark Twain Elementary School. Servin also serves as a translator at a meeting to discuss her group’s participation in the Nevada State Museum’s Nov. 4 observance of Day of the Dead, a celebration they embrace through such cultural vestiges as food, flowers and fun.

“We choose a particular person and display their picture,” says Servin. “We make the type of food they really enjoyed and always have a glass of clear water, which represents life or death. In the morning, the entire family fasts as a way to show respect for the dead—a sacrifice.”

Photo By David Robert

Families, the majority of them Catholic, will bring wreaths of marigolds or yellow chrysanthemums to church, then proceed to the cemetery, leaving the blooms on the graves of their loved ones. There exists very little solemnity as they pray and eat for those souls that have gone on to the spirit world. For many Hispanics whose dearly departeds’ resting places are in a distant homeland, the reverent will still engage in these same customs and rituals here, says Servin. She says that while many American-based Latinos have faithfully observed Dia de los Muertos ceremonies in their countries of origin, celebrating this cultural holiday in the United States is something new.

Maria Diaz, a young mother with dark brown eyes, plans to pay her respects entirely at the cemetery, though she and her family will release their flowers in a river as a symbol of the journey undertaken, with candles lighting the way.

“The candle is a way of saying that because [night] is when the dead come and visit you, they don’t have to in the dark, they have to find light,” Maria says through Servin. Fruit, bread, even tequila—whatever the honored dead preferred during their life on earth—is prepared and offered. But contrary to the parades, pig roasts and pomp of Memorial Day in the United States, Day of the Dead celebrations typically are observed privately, as opposed to large gatherings in public.

“Mass is usually for the entire community,” Maria says. “It depends on your religion, but usually [the day] is for individuals and families.”

After much discussion over whether Dia de los Muertos is a cultural or religious holiday, Servin says it’s a matter of personal preference, though she believes that for many Latinos, it’s a little of both.

“To [Maria’s family], it’s more about religion than it is a cultural thing,” says Servin. “It’s about belief. If the glass of water, left overnight, is missing a little bit, they think, ‘Oh, did they come and drink it?’ If the candles light really fast or are gone really fast, they say, ‘This person that I’ve given this ofrenda [offering] for, there must be a lot of light where they are in the other world.’ I think as our generations are growing, it’s become more of a cultural thing than it is a religion. Every generation is different. There are some religions that don’t believe in death, so why are you going to celebrate something you don’t believe in? For many, this will be the first year that we’ve done this in Carson City.”

The capital’s Nevada State Museum has invited local Latinos to create and display their own tables and tributes. The celebration is open to the public.

“It’s a good thing that we’re doing this because it’s giving opportunities for 10 families, who will have room to come and put up their photos and offerings and be able to have a place to do it,” says Deborah A. Stevenson, curator of education in the museum’s Department of Cultural Affairs.